NATO says 2 US soldiers killed in Afghan firefight

KABUL (AP) — NATO and Afghan forces came under heavy fire while searching a compound in eastern Afghanistan, sparking a gunbattle that killed two U.S. soldiers and five insurgents, NATO said Friday.

Among the dead was a Taliban commander with ties to the Haqqani group, a Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban faction with close ties to al-Qaida, NATO said. Gen. Mustafa Mosseini, chief of police in the province, also said the dead were insurgents.

Despite the official statements, hundreds of residents protested in the Pul-e-Alam district, saying they were not convinced the victims were Taliban fighters.

The casualties came during a joint military operation in the district, where coalition forces had gotten word of insurgent activity in the compound.

"As the combined force approached the compound they began receiving hostile fire from different points, including heavy machine gun fire," NATO said in a statement.

A search of the compound later turned up automatic rifles, material for making roadside bombs and blasting caps.

Pul-e-Alam is in Logar, a strategic province because it controls southern land routes into Kabul, allowing weapons, explosives and fighters to move into the capital.

The protesters in Pul-e-Alam denounced the military operation, shouting "Death to America!" and "Down with the government," according to Bashir, a village elder who goes by just one name.

Later, protesters blocked a road and ordered a truck driver to flee before stoning the vehicle and burning it, witnesses said. Bashir said the truck was believed to be carrying logistical equipment for coalition troops.

NATO said it had no reports of a truck being burned.

Civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. and other international forces are highly sensitive in Afghanistan. Public outrage over such deaths prompted the top commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal last year to tighten the rules on the use of airstrikes and other weaponry if civilians are at risk.

NATO forces also said Friday that troops detained dozens of suspected militants and found weapons caches Thursday night in several areas of Afghanistan, including Ghazni, Khost and Helmand provinces.